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From what I hear, Lance and Grandma had a thing going. Yeah, I can believe it because you know what they say about Pisces women—they are sneaky, though they act innocent. They can have the morals of an alley cat, and you’d never believe they were cheating. Grandma Fannie, my mother’s mother, was indeed a Pisces. Grandpa, Oscar Porter, worked hard at the gas station and brought all his money home to Grandma. Grandpa was fine, and younger than Grandma by about fourteen years. He couldn’t read or write. I can’t remember where he met her, but he fell for her, and she’s been running over him ever since. I loved Grandpa. I mean I really loved him. I was his favorite thing in the whole world. He came home with Juicy Fruit gum for me every day and most of the time had a dime for me to spend. He loved his other grandchildren, too, but not like he loved me. He took the splinters out of my feet from the old wood floors, patted my head, and smiled at me all the time. He saved me from eating vegetables at the dinner table. He was also my favorite thing in the whole world.
My mother, Paula, worked in a department store downtown for a couple of years. I’ve never referred to her as Mom, Mommy, Mother, or anything close to that. She was simply “Paula” to us, because she wasn’t the nurturing type, and she sure didn’t treat her children in a motherly manner. Grandpa (who was actually my step grandfather) took care of my sister, Sydni, and me while Paula worked. There was no real daddy around. I don’t know who Sydni’s father was, but Paula said his name was Roy. I’ve never seen him in my life, and I don’t recall her ever seeing or talking to him. Sydni is two years older than me and moody and stingy like our mother. They said my daddy was Lance Resnick.
So . . . Paula was labeled a tramp during the pregnancy. Lance wasn’t sure whether or not I was really his because of Paula’s promiscuity. So, he started igoring her. Grandma was furious when she found out Paula was pregnant and had hidden it until she was almost seven months. Let’s not forget that I’m number two coming out of her womb, because Sydni is bouncing around with no father either. Lance’s family couldn’t stand that tramp Paula and didn’t believe he was my father. When I was born, everybody looked at me funny. Lance’s family always stared at me when I was around, but I had to see the Resnicks because Grandma and their family were friends and all hung out together.
When I was little, I somehow got worms. I recall being in the shed kitchen with panties down to my ankles, crapping on the floor with worms coming out. Grandma Fannie tried to tell me where they came from, but I really didn’t care; I just wanted them out of me. I was smart and perceptive, a little hustler who didn’t have time for worms and shit to be slowing me down from things I enjoyed like reading all the labels on the packages and cans and jars of food in our cupboards. I dreamed of having beautiful dresses and exquisite things, yearning for Easter and Christmas because they brought new clothes and presents. I knew that some day I’d be rich and off the streets of Philadelphia. I’d live in the suburbs. I’d have one of those credit cards that you go into the department store with and just sign your name and walk away with the prize. I wouldn’t be around pigeons or stray dogs. I’d swim in my own pool because I didn’t trust the one at the playground. People peed in it.
Lance Resnick’s older sister Libby had a daughter named Denise who was my age, so we had to play together. I referred to her as my “cousin” because that’s what my family told me she was. But every time I did, Libby and her family looked at me funny and didn’t say anything. They always referred to me as “Fannie’s granddaughter.” If someone asked who I was, they never, ever said “Lance’s daughter.” They never even acknowledged Paula. I felt awkward, but I never knew what they were thinking. It would be years before I found out the truth—I mean why I was looked at so oddly by Lance’s family and why they always seemed to be staring at me. I found out when I was twenty-three years old. Libby actually explained the “pencil thing” to me when I grew up. I just didn’t resemble the Resnicks. I was small and underweight. When I entered the first grade, I weighed only forty pounds. I had a medium brown complexion and thin dark hair that I usually wore in two long braids in back and one on top that reached down to my chin. I didn’t have a lot of clothes, so I wore dungarees and overalls most of the time. I used to wear a red-and-white striped shirt a lot with the beige overalls. I was nicknamed “Dennis the Menace” because I was always doing something devilish. I had large dark brown eyes and a tiny mouth. All the Resnicks were very light-skinned with thick reddish brown hair. They had big eyes, too. The people in their family were chunky.
It seemed like card games went on every night, but actually it was only weekends—tonk, poker, cooncan, or pitty pat. Sydni and I went with Grandma to Libby’s house, where the games took place. Libby Resnick was well respected. She ran the family and had all the money. She took care of her adult brothers and sisters whether they had jobs or not because their parents were down South in Georgia. When Denise and I were seven, we were pretty tight because we’d have to play together while those marathon card games were going on. Sometimes Sydni came, too. We usually spent weekends together at each other’s house, and even though the Resnicks merely tolerated Paula, they were still pretty tight with Fannie. I always envied Denise; she had everything, I mean everything. Dresses by the designer Cinderella, lots of toys and money, and a fine piano. Her clothes were really beautiful, and I loved for her to spend the night with me. Most of the time she forgot something, like a dress or a skirt, and I could wear what she left behind. I felt so good in those clothes.
Six years later Paula was at it with someone else, and Renee was born. Her father, Horace Alston, acknowledged her. Horace was something else. He was so fine. Tall, dark, and handsome with a Cadillac and what seemed like a million dollars. He gave out dollar bills! He gave them to Sydni and me whenever he came around. Eventually we left Grandma’s house. Paula, Sydni, Renee, and I moved to a really nice neighborhood and into a big house with Horace. Sydni and I had twin beds, and there was a front yard and a driveway that we played in all the time. Everything was so clean. I loved that place.
Paula was the best cook ever. We had Ovaltine, Wheat Chex, or Rice Chex for breakfast, depending on which one we wanted. We always had the variety pack of cereal in case we didn’t want the other stuff. We liked Horace. I don’t remember how long we were there, maybe a year, and then for some reason we ended up back at Grandma’s, all except Horace. A year later Horace was still coming around, giving Paula money for Renee and sometimes taking us girls out, and he still gave us dollars. He was crazy about Renee. She really was a cute little girl. He didn’t stop dating Paula—or at least sleeping with her—from time to time. They were an item, and everyone knew it, but Paula continued to sneak off with other men. Horace didn’t go for that and could be pretty mean. Paula and everyone knew if he ever caught her, he’d kick her butt.
Well, lo and behold, he caught her one night in some dude’s car outside the Rockaway bar. Horace drove up in his black Cadillac and parked. He noticed Paula in a car with a guy, and her dress was pulled up damn near to her chest. Horace didn’t know him, but it was Wilson Jenkins, who came to the Rockaway from time to time. He actually lived on the west side of town. Wilson had one of his hands stuck between her legs, and they were kissing. Horace knocked on the window and calmly motioned Paula to come out of the car. The next thing you know, both of Wilson’s hands were on the steering wheel, and Paula was refusing to get out. Wilson never said a word to Horace. He was petrified and not about to fight him for Paula. He asked her to get out of his car. She said, “No,” and locked the door.
Horace stood there, looking at them, beckoning Paula to come. She knew he was about to kill somebody and didn’t think it would be Wilson Jenkins. Wilson continued shouting at Paula to get out, but she ignored him. He reached over her, trying to get to the lock, but Paula kept pushing him away, fighting him off. He stopped trying and just opened his door, jumped out, and ran. Horace quickly moved to the other side of the car and slid in. He beat Paula so badly that she eventually required stitches in her face. He dragged her to his car, punching her every step of the way. He threw her in and took her home.
Grandma had gone out. Grandpa was asleep, and so were us kids. When Horace found out Grandma wasn’t there and Paula had left all of us with Grandpa, he beat her ass again and told her she better not ever leave his daughter alone with Grandpa, who was known to drink too much beer and pass out, because anything could happen. He told her he better not ever catch her with that nigger Wilson again, or he would kill her for sure.
About two weeks later, Wilson came by with a brown paper bag and left it with Grandma for Paula. Her panties were in it. I loved school. I was so smart. I taught myself to read before I ever went there. When I was in second grade, I was good at everything except math, but I could count money without any trouble. I had quite a personality and was known as the class clown, always demanding attention. The teachers liked me. I liked reading and writing and singing and making money. I felt I just had to be rich one day.
About twice a year, the school had a cookie drive, and all the kids sold cookies door-to-door and store-to-store. I did okay but didn’t get the prize. A couple of months after the drive was over, I got myself a bunch of empty soda bottles and took them to the store for the refund. I’d been collecting them from all the neighbors, so I had a whole wagonload amounting to about eight dollars. I cashed them in and bought twenty-six boxes of chocolate circle cookies at twenty-nine cents a box. I put them in the wagon and began going door-to-door, telling the neighbors I was selling cookies for the school, and they cost fifty cents. All the neighbors bought at least one box. Many of them made comments like, “Gee, I didn’t know the school was even having a sale. Amber, you’re the first one to come here. I guess I have to buy from you.” “None of the other kids have been around yet. Did the drive just begin today?” “Well, it looks like you got a head start on the others. You sure are a go-getter, baby. I know you’ll win the prize for sure.”
I made a killing and had spending money for the bus excursion to Wildwood that was coming up and movie money for quite a while. I also bought myself some shrimp from the seafood place near the school. I love shrimp. One Saturday Curtis, another of Paula’s boyfriends, came by and offered to take Paula, Sydni, and me to Atlantic City. He and Paula went to the bars while Sydni and I did the amusements on the boardwalk. I loved Atlantic City with its fresh air and cool ocean breeze. I liked the pretty hotels and the restaurants inside. I liked the large ladies’ rooms in the hotels and how clean they always were. They had huge mirrors with light-bulbs around them like Hollywood dressing rooms. There was beautiful carpeting on the floors and bellhops dressed up neatly in uniforms, looking as if they belonged to a band. I admired the elegance of such fine establishments. We had fun on the boardwalk, especially at the Steel Pier with its diving horse. We ate salt-water taffy, corn on the cob, ice cream, and visited the wax museum. I loved those carts that carried you from one end of the boardwalk to the other. When I grew up and was rich, I wanted a fine car with a convertible top so the air could blow on me, through my hair, and I would be free, free to put my hands up if I liked.
I started playing games on the boardwalk. I won a game and selected a man’s watch for the prize. It only cost me a dollar. I was ecstatic! The watch was beautiful—gold with a black face. It was shiny and had only four numbers on the face. “Amber, that watch must have cost those people thousands of dollars!” Sydni remarked when the man handed it to me. “You’re so lucky to have won it.” She assumed I’d give it to Grandpa, who would show off at the gas station when he wore it. All those white people there would think we’d struck it rich.
We had to meet Curtis and Paula in front of the Cartier Hotel at seven o’clock. When they picked us up, I showed them the watch. I was so proud of it, but wasn’t quite sure what I would do with it.
“Amber,” Paula said immediately, “why did you pick that prize, and who will you give it to?”
I knew how Paula was about pretty things. I didn’t want her taking that watch and giving it to one of her boyfriends. I always thought she was stupid about money and people. I knew Grandma had more sense than Paula and really ran the show—the house and kids. In my eyes, Paula never seemed responsible enough to be the boss.
“I’ll save it,” I told Paula.
“Save it? For what? You won’t ever be a man, and girls don’t wear men’s watches. You must be planning to give it to Oscar.”
Paula called Grandpa “Oscar” because he was her stepfather. Paula’s real father lived in Cincinnati. His name was Riley Gray. I was a Gray because of him, the grandfather I had never seen.
I said I was saving it until I got married, then I’d give it to my husband. That would keep her from bothering me about it.
I didn’t know if I would give it to Grandpa or not—maybe yes, maybe no. I sat in the backseat of Curtis’s car, riding home to Philadelphia staring at that watch. My mind was going a mile a minute trying to think of exactly what I wanted to do with it. I didn’t want to just hand it over to Grandpa, even though I really loved him and he gave me all that gum on a regular basis. I thought about all those dimes, and all those vegetables I never had to eat because of him, and, well, I knew he really did deserve the watch. Then I thought about Lance, my daddy Lance. He treated me nice even though his people looked at me funny most of the time. They looked right in my eyes, studied my face, and watched the way I walked. He often brought me new dresses or left money with Paula or Grandma to buy sneakers or shoes for me. He wasn’t mad at me for anything; he was only mad with Paula. I could give the watch to Lance. Then I thought about Horace. He was nice to me, too, giving me money every time he saw me. He was good about taking me places with Renee, never mind that Sydni and I weren’t his. But if I gave the watch to Horace because of that, then what about Curtis? I was riding in his car now, and he had taken me to Atlantic City. He had given Sydni and me three dollars each. Even though I had my own stash from the fake cookie sale, Curtis did help me out. If it weren’t for him and his transportation, I wouldn’t have made it to Atlantic City or won the watch. It was a hard choice to make, so I decided not to give it to any of them because I simply couldn’t make up my mind. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Then I got the idea to sell it for twenty dollars. I didn’t know where, but I was definitely going to make some money off of it.
The next day the older guys were on the corner. I showed one of them the watch. He was new in the neighborhood, and I didn’t know his name. He liked it and wanted to buy it. I told him to give me a deposit of ten dollars, and he could get it when my mother got home from work because I needed her permission. He said okay, and I accepted the money. I waited a few hours and found Timmy Henry around the corner and showed the watch to him. I gave him the same story and took his ten dollars. After another couple of hours, I went into the local delicatessen, showing it to the owner. He loved it. I sold it to him for twenty dollars, collected the money, and gave him the watch. Paula arrived about nine o’clock that night. I was loaded with money but said nothing to her about the sale. When Timmy came for the watch, I tried to get rid of him but couldn’t. He told Paula what I had done. She demanded I return the money, but I said I had left it at Denise’s and would have to get it the next day. Meanwhile, I had to think of a way to avoid having to give it back. I wasn’t worried about the new guy finding me. He didn’t know where I lived, and that would buy me some time.
I had to face Timmy the following day in the street, and he wanted his money. I said I would get it from the house. I went inside and got a ten-dollar bill. I rubbed it all around between my legs and left it in my panties and returned outside. He asked again for the money. I reached down right in front of him and the other guys and pulled it out and smelled it. Before offering it to him, I made a face that indicated it stank. They all stared at me in disbelief. Then I tried to hand it to him, but he didn’t want it after all. I got to keep it. Now I had to resolve things with the guy who didn’t know where I lived. I was already thinking of what to do in order to keep that money.
It was New Year’s Eve, with Paula and Grandma getting dressed to kill. Nina Penster was coming to babysit Sydni, Renee, and me. Renee was a little over a year old then. Nina’s parents, Johnny and Reba Penster, had a big house around the corner from us. Mrs. Penster was a nice, quiet woman and a good mom. All she did was work and take care of the kids. One day a woman came to their door and asked for Johnny. Reba explained that he was sleeping. The woman told her to tell him that the two kids he had by her were hungry, and he’d better get some money to her for food. Reba said all right, closed the door, and simply went on with her housework, never waking Johnny.
Reba was exceptionally pretty, with skin the color of coffee with a lot of cream in it. She was tall and well built, but definitely no fashion plate in her long drab skirts and flat shoes. She was always wearing weird outfits that didn’t match. People said she was color-blind. Whenever she had to dress up for a special occasion, the neighbors got together, lending her things and matching her clothes up. They loved Reba. She worked as a librarian at the city library. She didn’t know how to cook, either, and whenever we stayed over there, dinner was colored red. Johnny Penster taught her to do that. It was always spaghetti or rice with tomatoes, and if she made something that wasn’t red, she’d dump a can of tomatoes or a bottle of ketchup in it. Everybody had to eat it. We spent a lot of time at her house.
People said the kids’ father was a dog. Most of the kids in the neighborhood were scared of Johnny. He looked so big and mean. Whenever he told us to do something, we did it quickly. We were always afraid he’d beat the tar out of us. He wasn’t home a lot, but when he was, we were good. I don’t know where he worked, but his kids told us he had a good job. We thought he was smart because he talked a lot about getting a good education. Whenever he took us for an outing, he piled us into his car, and, no matter where we went, we ended up in the library. He’d tell us to read and wait for Reba to bring us home. Grandma used to say that Johnny Penster married Reba when she was seventeen because she was so naïve, and he wanted to run around on her. To keep her from leaving, he had to be sure she didn’t look attractive enough to get another man. To effectuate his plan, he made sure she didn’t know how to dress. Because she didn’t know how to cook, he taught her to dump tomatoes and ketchup into everything. If she couldn’t feed a man properly and look good, she could never escape him. As it turned out, he was running with every woman in the neighborhood who would have him. Other kids wouldn’t have known or suspected anything if they hadn’t heard their own parents gossiping about it. They had looked up to him and respected him because they were afraid of him.
So, Grandma, Paula, their friends, and the gang that hung around with them were going to the Rockaway bar to ring in the New Year. Paula looked really sharp. She was thin and pretty and had on a tight-fitting black dress with fringes all over it that shook when she walked, plus black fishnet stockings and spike heels. She smelled like flowers and wore her reddish blond hair cut short and full of curls. She looked so pretty to me. Grandma was sharp as a tack, too, in a cream-colored chemise and sheer matching stockings and heels. She had waves in her hair and pearls around her neck.
Paula was meeting Jimmy Johnson at the party, and Grandma was meeting McNight, a friend of hers who came by the house sometimes. We never knew his first name. We just called him “McNight” because he was so black. Grandpa was asleep early. He had gotten drunk off beer and passed out, so Nina was hired to be in charge that night. We had plans of our own. I had just turned ten. Sydni was going on thirteen and Nina was fifteen.
Nina Penster lived down the street and had five brothers. Sydni and I used to spend the night at her house sometimes. I always peed in the bed. No matter where I went, I peed in the bed when I was asleep. When I stayed at the neighbors’ houses, their kids often fed me gingersnaps until I couldn’t move. They thought that eating enough of them would stop me up so I wouldn’t pee on them. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t.
One particular night we were at Nina’s house, and Mr. Johnny sat me down to tell me that if I wet the bed, I’d get a whipping. I prayed I wouldn’t and did it anyway. I was sleeping in the bed with Sydni and Nina, and when I realized what I had done, I was terrified. I knew I’d better get it cleaned up and dry. I took off my panties and, very carefully, removed Sydni’s as she slept. I put my wet ones on her and moved her over into the pee spot. Then I put on her panties and my clothes and headed home in the dark, scared to death. I banged on the front door, and Grandma let me in. It must have been after midnight. I told her I’d had a bad dream and wanted to be in my own bed.
The next day Sydni was in big trouble. She tried to explain to Mr. Johnny that she never wet the bed, and he didn’t believe her at first. However, given my history and since I had left the scene of the crime, they figured it out. I never spent the night there again.
Once Nina got to our house and Grandma and Paula left for the New Year’s party, we started to get into everything. First we took some clothes hangers and pulled them apart to make them straight. Then we stuck them into the light fixtures to create sparks, our own fireworks for the New Year. We mixed up all kinds of juice and ginger ale, trying to make Thunderbird wine. I had gotten a plastic doll baby for Christmas. She was really cute, even if she was white. I decided she should be brown like me. So I stuck her in the oven and began to bake her. The next thing we knew, the plastic was melted all over the oven, and the kitchen smelled awful.
After we got “drunk,” we found a drill and went upstairs to the attic to bore holes in the floor. About eleven thirty, it was almost time to ring in the New Year. We dressed up in Grandma’s and Paula’s clothes. Wow! I had on a straight, red “wet-look” dress of slithery material with a belt tied at the waist. I put on stockings and low-heeled shoes, lipstick and rouge, and piled my hair on top of my head. Sydni hooked herself up in a long pleated skirt and a silver-beaded blouse that glittered. We had on bras with toilet paper stuffed in them, and Sydni found a pair of black T-strap heels. Nina wanted to be extra sexy and put on one of Grandma’s long nightgowns with stockings and heels, but got scared she would fall and changed to boots. We got our coats, Nina wearing an ugly old fur of Grandma’s, and we left the house. Thank God Grandpa was sleeping like a rock. We walked three blocks to the white neighborhood and started to ring doorbells and run away laughing. It was freezing outside, but we didn’t care. We were partying.
We got cold walking back toward home. When a man pulled up in a car, Nina asked for a ride, and he said to hop in. He asked us why we were on the street. Nina, the oldest and in charge, explained that we had been to a party and were on our way home. She told him we lived downtown, about eight blocks from there, and needed a ride. He agreed. I was in the front seat with him. Sydni and Nina were in back. For some reason, they began to tease him about his clothes and call him an old man. He had a Southern accent and Nina started to mock him. They kept on laughing and saying mean yet funny things. He began to get angry and sick of us. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t put us out of the car. Oh, they were carrying on and wouldn’t shut up. They told him he had a lousy beat-up old car, and that did it. The man pulled over and ordered us all to get out.
I don’t know what got into Nina. She reached over from the backseat and snatched the keys out of the ignition. She and Sydni jumped out and ran across the street, hollering for me to come. I had on a short-waisted jacket instead of a coat. That man grabbed the belt of my red wet-look dress before I could get the door open. The knot in the belt was so tight I couldn’t get it undone. He yelled to them that he was going to keep me. Sydni and Nina stood across the street in shock.
Well, there I was, kicking and screaming on New Year’s Eve, trying to get away from the madman whose car Nina suggested we get into. She and Sydni hollered at him to let me go. That crazy country dark-skinned man with a gold tooth, driving a big red Cadillac with fake leopard-skin seats, wearing white pants in December, a white shirt, a red sports jacket, white socks, red leather shoes, and a great big white hat with a giant red feather sticking out of it like the man on the cigar box, was holding me hostage!
That stupid nightgown Nina had on was blowing in the wind on Market Street in downtown Philadelphia. And those ugly brown boots of Grandma’s were on her feet. The fur coat, either possum or rat, was hanging off her. Sydni’s three-quarter-length jacket was loads too big for her and suddenly the silver glitter top she was wearing looked ridiculous. It was five minutes to two o’clock in the morning, and I knew Grandma and Paula should be home soon because the Rockaway closed at two.
I thought about that damn white doll baked in the oven, dripping plastic all over, holes in the attic floor, and glasses all over the kitchen. Renee was there with Grandpa, who had passed out. I thought, “If Horace is at the Rockaway and finds out about this, he may kill us, too.”
I knew if the country animal in this car didn’t cause my death first, Paula and Grandma would for sure. I was scared to death. By then Nina and Sydni were too frightened to come back to the car. I was being choked around the waist with that damn belt, and the dummies across the street couldn’t figure out what to do. They shrieked for the police—they didn’t have a dime for the phone. By then I was trying to bite that goon to get away from him. Ten whole long minutes went by that seemed an eternity. I was crying and the guy kept saying, “I’ve got you, and you’ll stay with me until I get my keys.”
Nina and Sydni were afraid to throw the keys to him for fear he wouldn’t let me go. At five minutes after two, a police car came by. Sydni and Nina ran for it. They both talked at once and pointed to the car we were in. The goon got out, but the police told him to get back in and stay there. They put Sydni and Nina in the cop car, came over to rescue me, and called a wagon for the goon.
By 2:43 a.m. Rupert Taylor was in the wagon, crying about being charged with kidnapping. Sydni, Nina, and I were in the car with the cops, all of us bawling. They hauled us all into the station and sat us down. How were we going to get out of this mess?
The police took our names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Thank God we were minors. Nina told them that Rupert had abducted us. The cops noticed how we were dressed and shook their heads. Rupert’s hat was all bent up from fighting with me. Nina in that nightgown was a hoot. At first she lied, saying Rupert broke into the house and got us out. By then I was so tired of the whole ordeal and scared to death that I just told the truth. The police called our parents. When they couldn’t reach anyone at our house, they called Nina’s dad. I would have gone to the electric chair right then and there rather than see Johnny Penster. Nina got diarrhea as soon as they got him on the phone and crapped on herself all the way to the bathroom. Sydni just sat and cried. She never said a word. In thirty-five minutes Johnny Penster arrived. When he took a look at Nina in that outfit and got a whiff how she smelled, I thought he’d slap her across the room. He couldn’t find Paula or Grandma for us. It was after three o’clock, and they weren’t home yet. The police wouldn’t release Sydni and me to anyone other than Grandpa, Grandma, or Paula. They kept on calling home and getting no answer.
As scared as I was of Johnny Penster, I really didn’t want him to abandon us at the police station. Nina was terrified, knowing her father was about to kill her. I felt sorry for her and was mad at her at the same time for getting us into this jam. She was the oldest, the babysitter, and was in charge. Maybe she deserved to get killed by Mr. Johnny. I had my own troubles to worry about.
After giving Rupert a lecture, the cops let him go. He had stopped crying and promised not to pick up any girls ever again. He tried to find a way back to his car. It was now after four o’clock in the morning.
Suddenly I figured that Grandma and Paula were probably at Libby’s, or at least Grandma might be. Paula rarely went there because of the way they felt about her. I gave the police Libby’s address, but I didn’t know the telephone number. I was afraid to send them to our house for Grandpa because he would either have to leave Renee alone to pick us up or awaken her and bring her along. Either way, if Renee were involved, Horace would kill all of us for sure. The cops checking Libby’s house was our best bet for getting out of jail and having some sort of a chance at survival, after being released to Grandma.
Well, I was right. Grandma was at Libby’s, along with nineteen other people the police brought to jail for illegal gambling and selling liquor without a license. In an hour and fifteen minutes, four paddy wagons showed up. We had found our Grandma. Paula wasn’t with them. Lucky Paula. Now my real daddy, Lance, was in jail along with my sister, Grandma, Libby, and me. It was like a family reunion. They even had McNight and seventy-nine-year-old Mrs. Dunlap in the paddy wagon. Sydni and I watched them file in. I started praying again for the electric chair. I didn’t want to go home whenever they found Paula to come for us.
The ambulance arrived outside Stanley Mason’s house. They quickly placed Perry Shoreman’s body on a stretcher and proceeded to Holy Cross Hospital. He was bleeding profusely from the chest. And neck. Sheila got the call from Stanley’s wife, Vivian, and rushed to the hospital with her four children. On the way she thought about all the hard times she’d had with Perry since she met him in high school.
He always was a bunch of trouble. She couldn’t understand how she’d been so stupid as to hook up with him in the first place. Sheila was smart in school and had aspirations. She made good grades and was well liked by teachers and students. She was a cheerleader at Roosevelt High. She was about five feet eight, and wore her hair in a becoming style. Her family didn’t have much money, but Sheila was always presentable and looked nice.
Perry was on the track team at school. Skinny but kind of fine, he charmed Sheila into dating him. Even though he was fine, she really didn’t want to go with him because he played hooky and didn’t keep up with his work. He was always soliciting people to turn over their homework to him so he could copy it, and he cheated on tests. He shot craps with the older guys. When he did show up for school, he was usually late.
Perry liked Sheila, so he wouldn’t leave her alone. He kept pestering her to give him a chance and to help him out with his work. He told her he’d straighten up. A few months into her junior year, Sheila started seeing him on a regular basis. They became a couple. He did a little better in school with Sheila’s coaching.
A couple of months later Perry started to pressure her, but she kept saying no. Eventually after a few hot necking sessions and all that grinding he liked to do when her folks were at work, she gave up the crown jewels one afternoon when they were supposed to be studying.
Sheila was pregnant with Derek before the end of the school year and had him in October of what would have been her senior year. She never got a chance to return to school. On her eighteenth birthday in May of the next year, Perry and Sheila married. She was pregnant at the time with Dalton, who was born in December. After that came Margie and then Gregory, now almost two years old. Now twenty-seven with four kids, Sheila lived in a run-down shack and had a husband who stayed in the streets, gambled, drank, and blew their money. She no longer weighed one hundred fourteen pounds, but had ballooned to two hundred fifty pounds. Her hair was a wiry mess. Sheila was disgusted with herself.
She got to the hospital and parked her beat-up Chevy. She left the kids in the car and rushed inside to ask the nurse at the reception area about Perry. They took her right back to him. He lay there with tubes in him everywhere while they worked to save his life. He wasn’t conscious. She stared at him for a moment as mixed emotions surged through her mind. First she was sorry for Perry, then she was scared for him, herself, and her kids. Would he live or die? If he did live, would he have learned a lesson or continue to be reckless and stupid for the rest of his life?
She pondered how they would make it and whether she could get a job. Who would help her out with the kids if she went to work? Gregory was two and was still in diapers. Every time she saw a nurse in a white uniform go by, she hated herself for being so hot in the ass and dumb back in high school. She hated Perry for robbing her of her dreams of being a nurse.
The doctor asked Sheila to leave the room. She did, and took a seat in the waiting room. She decided to get the kids out of the car in case they could see Perry. She got them settled down, bought cold drinks, and waited. She called Perry’s mother and father and told them what had happened to Perry. Now they too were waiting anxiously. Perry was in surgery.
At one fifteen the doctor arrived to tell them that Perry had died on the operating table. Mr. and Mrs. Shoreman sobbed, along with ten year-old Derek, but the other kids remained silent. Sheila didn’t say a word. She picked up Gregory, told the rest of the kids to follow her, and abruptly left the hospital. She never even asked about the body or the particulars of what had gone on in the operating room. She didn’t know if his heart had given out or if his lung was gone or if the anesthesia had killed him. After ten years Sheila simply did not give a damn and didn’t want to know all the details concerning what had prevented Perry from not making it home to his family another night.
At least she’d been smart enough to have a life insurance policy on him. It was only for three thousand dollars, but it was more than she’d had in a long time. He was her husband, so she did have to use part of it to bury him. She let his mother handle the arrangements because she herself was still mad as hell at Perry and hadn’t yet shed a tear. She gave the Shoremans five hundred dollars for funeral expenses. They could add more if they liked, but she was keeping the rest for herself and the kids. They were furious but accepted what she offered and tried to send Perry off decently to heaven or hell or wherever he was going.
Everyone from the neighborhood came to the funeral. Even though Lance shot Perry, Libby and her family came to offer their condolences. On that long pew up front sat Sheila and the kids, Mr. and Mrs. Shoreman, Perry’s sister, Eileen, and her husband, Teddy. Their three kids sat behind the Shoremans. It turned out to be a pretty nice funeral, and the neighbors sent beautiful flowers. After the funeral director finished and all the words were spoken, they opened the casket for the final viewing. The congregation filed by, silent and solemn faced. Then came Eileen and her bunch, the Shoremans, Perry’s kids, and, at the very end, came Sheila.
She went up to the casket alone and just stood there looking at Perry. Everyone figured she was about to break down and cry because she loved her husband and would miss him. Grief would finally hit her, and she was ready to let it all out. Everyone knows how wives act when they lose their husbands. Sheila hadn’t shown any emotion since Perry’s death. It had been a week, yet there was little or no response from Sheila. Many of us thought she had gone crazy or was in a trance or something.
“If she keeps all that grief locked up in her, she’ll go crazy for sure,” Grandma kept saying.
Sheila was still livid with Perry for all of this shit. The next thing we knew, Sheila suddenly started to choke Perry and smack him in the face, right there in the casket.
“You miserable low-life son of a bitch, you were always a pain in the ass. Always a problem. Your ass should be dead because you weren’t worth anything alive. I ought to shoot you again right here,” she shouted.
Friends ran up to stop her, but they couldn’t pull her off. Sheila had him by the neck, dragging him out of the casket. His body fell on the floor and so did Sheila. Several people pulled Sheila’s fat ass down the aisle, and others got Perry back into the casket. Mrs. Shoreman passed out. Sheila was kicking and hollering that she wasn’t finished with Perry. She announced that she intended to dig him up after he was buried and finish beating the shit out of him. By then no one was paying much attention to what she was saying, because both Perry’s shoes were missing from his feet, lost in the scuffle, and relatives and neighbors were searching for them. That funeral was something else!
After a month, the Shoremans were still irate at Sheila for attempting to kill their son all over again. Sheila didn’t care what they thought. That no-good bastard had ruined her dreams and had almost cost them their home. She despised him for dying and not being around for his children and being a rotten example of a father. She’d hated it when thugs, people she had nothing to do with, knocked on the door, asked for him, and left messages that they wanted the money he owed them. He truly did ruin her life, and she felt stupid for ever bothering with him.
Since his death all she did was sit around feeling sorry for herself, eating uncontrollably and gaining weight. She was so filled with hatred and fury that she consulted a psychiatrist for anger management and was placed on tranquilizers. Her cousin Terri stopped by late one afternoon, and there was Sheila on the couch, staring into space with tears streaming down her face, a bottle of tranquilizers in her hand. Terri held and rocked her, and they both cried.
“Sheila, what can I do, what can we do for you?” Terri said. “You’ve got friends. Let us help. We’re all worried sick about you.” Sheila didn’t answer. Finally Terri thought about what a fighter Sheila had always been. She felt sorry for her favorite cousin. Sheila needed to release something in order to get well, so Terri changed her tune from begging and pleading with Sheila. She stood up and yelled at her.
“Listen, bitch, we been hanging for a long time together through thick and thin, goddamn it! You better get yourself together and fight to stay alive! Now get your ass up! You’ve been talking about cursing that bastard Perry out and tonight you’ll get your chance. Get your shit on and let’s go. I’ll make a couple of phone calls while you get ready. The first one will be to Pam Resnick to come babysit and the second will be to Wesley to round up his crew. We’ll go to the fucking cemetery and dig his dead ass up! If that’s what it takes to get you to come around, to come back, to get some closure, then that’s what we’re going to do!”
Sheila tried to say she could not, would not go. It didn’t matter, and she didn’t care.
“Bitch, I’ve known you since you were bald-headed and cockeyed,” Terri replied. “You’ve never backed away from anything in your whole damn life. Let’s go!”
Sheila wouldn’t budge, so Terri shook her and pleaded, “Please, please, come with me.” Terri was crying with frustration. At last Sheila obediently went to get ready. Pam Resnick showed up in a hurry, but they waited an hour and a half for Wesley and four of his friends.
“You owe me money and favors up the kazoo. I need a big one tonight. It will sound crazy, but we have to do this,” Terri said when Wesley walked in the door.
“Do what?” asked Wesley.
“We have to go out to the cemetery and dig up Sheila’s husband.” Wesley looked petrified at first, and then he laughed.
“Your mind has gone, Terri, and so has your cousin’s. You expect me to go out there and tell my boys this? You gotta be joking. What are the two of you on? Give me a hit of that shit.”
“I’m serious, Wesley. Please,” Terri pleaded.
“What the hell are we going to do with him once we dig him up—bring him back here? You guys getting back together or something?” He looked at Sheila. “Oh, no, Terri, I’m not carting his dead ass around. I don’t owe you that much money. We’ll all go to jail tonight.”
“We ain’t taking him anywhere. We’re just going to fuck him up.”
“He’s already fucked up,” said Wesley. “Shit, the man is dead. By the way, didn’t your cousin fuck him up enough at the funeral? Shit, how many ass whippings does he have to take? Damn, the man already got shot, didn’t survive the hospital, died, got his ass beaten at his own funeral, and now we got to dig him up and kick his ass again? I feel sorry for the poor guy. Jesus Christ, you two are hard on a brother. Remind me not to ever marry either one of you.”
“Oh, shut up, Wesley,” said Sheila, who had entered the room dressed to go. “We aren’t going to jail. Let’s just hurry and get it done before I change my mind.”
Wesley stood still for a minute, shaking his head and laughing, then went out to his car. They didn’t know if he’d come back or not, but in a few minutes he returned.
“How many shovels do you have?” he asked.
Terri, Sheila, and the three guys left with two shovels and gathered three more from the neighbors. They stopped to buy five decks of cards. On the way to the cemetery, Sheila announced that she wanted to stop at the hospital.
“What’s the matter, you sick?” Terri said.
“I have to pick up something, I’ll only be a minute.”
“What, another dead body—did somebody else make you mad?” Wesley sarcastically asked.
Sheila came out twenty minutes later carrying a bag. At the cemetery they all dug until they got to the casket. They cranked it open, and Sheila took a long look at her dead husband. He stank like shit. She started telling him off.
“You got the nerve to be laying there all dressed up, you sack of shit. You still owe me for the clothes you’re wearing. I should have been able to dress up, too, but I never got the chance to wear what I wanted to wear. I have it with me now though, goddamn it.”
Sheila pulled a nurse’s cap and a lab coat out of the bag and put them on. She cursed him out and cried for forty-five minutes. She hauled him out of the casket, kicked him a couple of times, smacked him around, and left him on the ground. She took out the five decks of cards, opened each pack, and spread them all over him—one deck for each of the kids and one for her. Then they left.
When Mr. and Mrs. Shoreman heard about it, they tried to file charges against Sheila, but they couldn’t prove she had anything to do with it. After that night Sheila was fine and seemed ready to move on. She wasn’t bitter anymore and decided to lose weight, get some help with the kids, go back to school, fix up her place, and be the finest nurse and mother in the world.
First, she had to find a babysitter. Gregory was almost two, and Margie was nearly five and would be attending kindergarten in the fall. She made inquiries and found that a woman by the name of Lenora Bush, who was about fifty-two, was looking for a housekeeping job. She also needed a place to stay. Since her husband had passed away, she was having a hard time making ends meet and was lonely. Sheila heard about her from Beverly Resnick, who was married to Bernard (Buzzy) Resnick, Lance’s brother.
They had known each other for a long time and attended the same church. Beverly was a good, reliable person. Sheila trusted her judgment, so she set up an appointment for Mrs. Bush to meet with her.
Using some of the money from Perry’s life insurance settlement, Sheila had fixed the place up nicely. The money helped to buy new carpet, beds for the kids, and new curtains. She also purchased a badly needed stove and refrigerator. Sheila was still on the County Assistance Program, but she did get an extra check from Perry’s Social Security benefits. Thank God he had worked legitimately part of his life.
Sheila had all her plans in order. She was a smart girl and, with the seven hundred dollars left over, she planned to get herself through school and earn her degree as a registered nurse at last.
Mrs. Bush was due on Wednesday afternoon at two thirty. Sheila wanted her to come by a little before Dalton and Derek got home so they would have a quiet time to talk. She had put Margie and Gregory down for a nap. That way they had peace and quiet, and the woman would not be scared off with brats running all over the place.
Lenora Bush was a pretty, slender woman who in no way looked her age. She was dressed nicely in a light blue-and-white striped cotton dress, sheer stockings that made her legs look lovely, and navy blue shoes. Her hair was dark reddish brown and worn in a bun. “How did she keep so slender?” Sheila wondered. She had white gloves in her hand and carried a navy handbag with a gold clasp. Very classy. She had never had any children of her own but had taken care of kids almost all her life. Sheila liked her.
Sheila missed having her own parents around. They had moved to New Orleans seven years ago when Sheila’s grandmother fell ill. Sheila was an only child now because her younger brother had died of pneumonia when he was eleven. Sheila described her situation to Mrs. Bush, showed her around the house, including the redecorated spare bedroom, and explained what her goals were. She was still on the diet she had started the day after she left the cemetery. She had lost nearly forty-three pounds but still had a way to go. It all was extremely important to her.
“Do you think you’d like to come to stay with us? I mean will you?” she asked Mrs. Bush. Sheila could only pay forty dollars a week, but would take care of all the bills and also feed Mrs. Bush. She told her that whatever money of her own she had coming in she could keep.
“Please help me get myself together. I do intend to get ahead, and I’ll take care of you for the rest of your life.”
Mrs. Bush looked into Sheila’s eyes and saw she could trust her. She wanted to help.
They had chatted for about fifteen minutes when Derek and Dalton came in from school. They were polite kids and sat right down to talk with Mrs. Bush. Sheila went up to get Gregory and Margie to introduce them to “Auntie Len,” as Lenora told everyone to call her. She could start next week, as soon as she got packed up.
Everything worked out fine. Sheila started taking adult education courses at the local college to earn her high school diploma. She worked hard at it and, in another six months, would be eligible to start nursing school. The kids adored Auntie Len, and she loved them back. Lenora knew how to keep them in line, too. Sheila was steadily losing weight on a steamed vegetable and fish diet and wouldn’t even think about anything fattening. She was actually starting to look good. She exercised like a maniac and had a sharp new hairstyle.
Sheila loved having long talks with Lenora, and they became close friends. Lenora had taken over all the cooking as well as all the housework. She went out only on Sunday nights to play bingo.
A fur store in town needed a part-time accounts receivable clerk, and Sheila got the job. She worked five days a week from two o’clock until closing at six. Then she went home to help Auntie Len feed the kids and clean up the kitchen. She hustled to get their school clothes ready before heading to the gym until the place closed at ten o’clock. And that was where she met Leonard.